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Mike Partain hardly expected the horrible surprise his wife discovered while giving him a goodnight hug in April 2007: he had a lump right above his left nipple. After undergoing a mammogram, Partain was diagnosed with male breast cancer. Luckily, he was able to have a mastectomy and is a cancer survivor.

Male breast cancer is extremely rare. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society only 1,900 male breast cancer cases will be diagnosed this year, compared with 192,000 cases in women. Partain wondered, what could’ve caused such a rare diagnosis in him? He had no history of male breast cancer in his family and a test for a gene linked to breast cancer came out negative. However, he became suspicious that his male breast cancer was caused by chemical contaminants after he saw a news story in June 2007 on CNN. The news story covered problems with contaminated water at the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina Marine base, where Partain grew up. Specifically, for three decades—from the 1950s to the mid-1980s—the Marines’ water supply was laced with chemicals from an off-base dry-cleaning company and industrial solvents used to clean military equipment. Partain began to receive publicity from all of the major news networks, eager to cover a story about a male breast cancer survivor. Partain was more than happy to use his newfound pulpit to spread the word about the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

However, even after seeing the CNN coverage and speaking out against Camp Lejeune on national news networks, Partain was beginning to consider himself an anomaly until his suspicions were finally confirmed. Kris Thomas, an Alabama minister, called Partain after reading an article in a Lakeland newspaper, to tell him that he, too, was diagnosed with male breast cancer despite having no family history of the disease. He also had lived on the Camp Lejeune base—during the same time period that Partain lived with his family on the marine base. Soon, two other male breast cancer victims approached Partain. Bill Smith, a professor at Florida State University, contacted Partain after reading an article in a Tallahassee newspaper. Then, a woman approached Partain at a church function where he spoke, to tell him that her stepfather had died from male breast cancer. He had also been a Camp Lejeune Marine. Partain didn’t end his search there: with his interests peaked, he began posting information on cancer bulletin boards on the Internet. He even joined a male breast cancer support group, its only male member. Finally, in 2008, scientists noticed all of his hard work. Epidemiologists began to study the Camp Lejeune water, although they still don’t know if they can actually prove that the water caused the male breast cancer. Nevertheless, scientists are hopeful to generate enough circumstantial evidence to propel the Marines to compensate the victims for their suffering. The Marines continue to decline comment on Partain’s work, despite keeping tainted wells open for decades and failing to warn anyone of the dangers of drinking the contaminated water.

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